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America's espresso obsession began in historic Coupeville

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Americans spend some $18 billion a year on specialty coffee, from lattes and Americanos to cappuccinos and whip-topped sweet caramel macchiatos.

The next time you’re in line at Starbucks, consider this: America’s mania for fancy coffee has its roots in a very modest ice cream shop on Front Street in Coupeville.

And the two brothers – Jim and Dave Stewart – whose passion for good coffee helped spark the nation’s espresso obsession will be in Coupeville next week to share their memories.

Roasting on Front Street

It was 1969, and Jim was a young optometry student visiting friends on Whidbey Island who needed help with some plumbing. Originally from California, the friends had moved to Coupeville to launch a salvage business.

They convinced 21-year-old Jim that this quiet town was an up-and-coming tourist destination and the perfect spot for an ice cream shop catering to summertime visitors.

The Wet Whisker served up scoops of 18 flavors of ice cream. First-day sales amounted to $18.75, and by the end of the summer the business had sold some 30,000 cones, earning a profit of about $800 – a pretty decent sum in the early 70s, Jim said.

“It was awful on your wrist,” Jim said with a laugh.

The business was a family operation with Jim’s 15-year old brother, Dave, also wielding a scoop.

After that first successful summer, it would be many years before the business turned a profit again, Jim said. Front Street had fewer businesses and less traffic compared to today, both brothers said.

Looking for a way to boost sales, the following summer the brothers began selling coffee beans by the pound, grinding them right there in the shop for customers who typically did not have a grinder at home.

The shop’s Freeland-based bookkeeper had suggested the brothers roast their own coffee beans. She told Jim to check out a shop called The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf next time he visited Southern California. Jim ended up working for that shop for almost a year, in between the first two summers in Coupeville.

The premium beans sold for considerably more than Americans were used to paying for coffee, and many people – including their parents – thought the venture was doomed to failure.

“My parents couldn’t understand why people would pay $1.79 per pound when you could get three pounds for 33 cents in the grocery store,” Jim said. “Everyone knew that coffee came in a can from Folgers.”

But the brothers’ intuition panned out, as people were willing to pay a premium for higher quality beans and later on, beverages.

Seattle’s best

In 1971, the brothers jumped into the Seattle market. Their first Seattle-based ice cream and coffee bean shop was on Pier 70 on the waterfront, and the coffee was roasted ed on site.

The brothers introduced espresso at their University District store in 1978 – one of the best decisions that the business ever made, Jim said.

At one point, 12 shops bearing the name, the Wet Whisker, were in the greater Seattle area, with one in Portland and one in Colorado.

Lots of time and hard work went into expanding the business, Jim said. He credits 25-hour workdays for the company’s success. Good employees were important, too, Dave added.

In 1983, the brothers sold their Coupeville business, but this did not end their Coupeville story.

Dave would meet Coupeville residents Paul and Karen Whelan while on a visit to the ice cream shop with his family about seven years ago.

Paul and his brother had owned the building that Jim and Dave rented, but the two sets of brothers had not met years before. The property had been managed for the Whelan brothers as, they had not been living in the area at the time.

“We really developed a friendship with them,” Dave said. “We visited the Whelans’ ice-cream shop many times. Everything came full circle.”

It was the Whelans who suggested the brothers return to Coupeville to talk about the Wet Whisker and the beginnings of the espresso trend.

Growth and change

As the brothers further expanded the coffee business, the name Wet Whisker, which suited the ice-cream side of operations, did not seem to fit with the wholesale distribution of the coffee beans to restaurants.

The name, Stewart Brothers Coffee, however, fit and the company operated under that name for several years – until a Chicago-based company told them to stop using it because it had been trademarked.

Shortened to SBC for a brief span of time, the initials matched perfectly to the company’s final name. After winning a competition to determine the best cup of coffee in Seattle in 1991, the company was renamed Seattle’s Best Coffee.

Dave sold his share of the business to his brother in the mid-1980s, but still has coffee running in his veins. He currently lives in Snohomish and owns the Vista Clara Coffee company, creating a fresh roasted blend similar to that developed at Stewart Brothers Coffee.

Dave proudly says he has been married for 37 years and is the papa of three and grandpa of seven. His daughter and son-in-law now call Oak Harbor home and he says he appreciates his visits to Whidbey when he visits her family.

“I wouldn’t change a thing about how my life turned out,” Dave said. “I really enjoy what I do and I’ll keep doing it. There’s no reason not to.”

Jim’s ownership in the company also decreased over the years. As the company grew in size, Jim wasn’t sure he had the skills and expertise to grow it further.

Jim sold 60 percent of the company to Larry McDonald and a partnership with McDonald’s company, Torrefazione Italia Coffee, was formed. Combined sales grew from $15 million to $40 million per year, he said.

Jim then sold half of his ownership to an Atlanta-based group, AFC Enterprises, Inc. – which at the time also owned Cinnabon, Church’s Chicken and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. Sales grew to $100 million per year.

Around the same time  Seattle’s Best Coffee was acquired by Starbucks in 2003, Jim sold the remainder of his shares in the company.

Jim said he never viewed Starbucks as a competitor even though both started their Seattle operations in the same year.

He points out that Stewart Brothers had actually started roasting two years before the coffee behemoth got its start.

“I paid little attention to them because we did things so differently,” Jim said.

Starbucks developed dark roasting following the model set by Peet’s Coffee and Tea, while the Stewarts cultivated the lighter, Northern European-style of roasting coffee following the model of The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

As for Jim, he never did finish optometry school. And he still has ties to coffee.

He spends the summer months on Vashon Island, and winters in Costa Rica. He helps out at Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie and Langley’s Mulkiteo Coffee Roasters, buying coffee beans for them directly.

His wife, Luz Marina Stewart, owns and manages the Santa Elena coffee farm in Costa Rica.

“I still take people through Coupeville when visiting the area,” Jim said. “It is remarkable that any of this ever happened.”

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